A posting by David Berkowitz on the Social Media Insider blog caught my attention. It contains some interesting suggestions and observations from a conference attendee and meetings industry outsider. I especially like his suggestions about putting speakers’ twitter handles on the screen while they present and treating bloggers like press (selfish I know). However, I was a little curious about one particular comment. Berkowitz advises conference organizers against creating private social networks just for their attendees. “With rare exceptions, they’re a waste of time, and participants would be better served with groups on existing networks like Facebook and LinkedIn,” he says.
I contacted David Berkowitz for clarification. He elaborated in an email exchange that, “I’ve signed up for a lot of these specialized networks, and most fail because they don’t get enough members using them, and they don’t provide enough value for the members who do. There are occasions where it works, like for SXSW where there’s a large number of attendees, a very complicated schedule, and days of spontaneous networking. Most of the time, however, the people really using the custom event networks for networking purposes (as opposed to just registering to create a schedule) are the obsessive networkers who you try to avoid in the halls as they thrust their business card in your face.”
Having followed the development of these private, event-centric networks like Zerista, Pathable, CrowdVine and EventVue for some time now, I know that they offer far more functionality than the public networks such as Facebook, Linked In, Plaxo and others. According to John Kanarowski of Zerista, some of the main features of his and other platforms include:
1. Meeting scheduler to enable advance scheduling of 1:1 meetings
2. Schedule builder to create and then export your own personal schedule of keynotes, sessions, workshops, etc.
3. Share personal schedule with other attendees
4. Highlight event-specific interests within your profile
5. Match attendees with other attendees, exhibitors and sessions
6. Exhibitor tools like virtual booths and at booth meeting scheduler
7. Embedded webcasting of keynotes, sessions, and workshops
8. Aggregated feed of event-related social media from multiple places on the web (twitter, YouTube, flickr, etc.)
9. Aggregate attendee profiles from other social networks in one place
10. Integrated online registration and payment engine to sell premium online services and content access
11. Ability to charge virtual attendees the same price as in-person attendees for attending the event
12. Interactive maps of the trade show floor, venue and local area
13. Custom privacy settings to enable different access rights for paid attendees, exhibitors, speakers, and visitors
With such robust (cliché marketing term, sorry) tools available, why would apparently seasoned conference goers like David Berkowitz find them ineffective? For one thing, private networking platforms are developed with the needs of the event organizer in mind—understandable since the platforms are generally paid for by the event organizers and are free of charge to users (putting conference registration fees aside). “We’ve found that by focusing on solving the problems of event managers, we can enable them to improve their events in a measurable way. We measure the impact of our software using quantifiable metrics – like the number of 1:1 meetings scheduled in advance, percentage of attendees and exhibitors that use the tools, percentage increase in event networking, percentage increase in event productivity, number of additional leads for exhibitors, and other similar metrics,” says Kanarowksi.
There are other issues to consider. Some attendees don’t take the time to learn how to navigate the networking tools that event organizers provide. Often the tools are too complex for novice social networkers. They don’t know the platforms exist or what they do. Facebook and Twitter are no-brainers and may provide enough functionality for attendees without the bells and whistles offered by customized networking platforms.
It’s true that event-specific platforms separate the wheat from the chaff. They get down to business and allow users to only connect with people that are attending the conference and have access to the same tools, information and mindset that they have. It’s also true, however, that there is value to general networking tools like Facebook and the rest, and in the absence of more evolved platforms (i.e. event organizers can’t afford or don’t understand the potential of private networks), they allow the diligent worker bees and self-organizing social networking aficionados to seek each other out without Big Brother’s help. So, how do we close the gap between what some attendees want or need and what some organizers and solution developers want and offer?
· Event organizers need to take the user experience into consideration when choosing between platforms.
· Solution developers need to do everything possible to promote and enhance adoption rates.
· Attendees need to take responsibility for learning how to harness the power of customized event social networks.
· Let the David Berkowitzs out there be heard!